The Dramatist: How Aaron Sorkin Made Politics Entertaining
With The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin made it cool to care about politics. Sorkin's band of quippy White House staffers and a president who was hard not to love helped him walk the line between politics and entertainment and score repeated Emmy wins. We chatted with Sorkin, one of the influential television industry players interviewed for TVGuide.com's Best of the Decade section, about his beloved political drama, why it struck a chord with viewers, and how a similar approach to melding Hollywood and Washington hurt his follow-up, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
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TVGuide.com: Is it true that you pitched The West Wing off the cuff?
Aaron Sorkin: John Wells had asked to have lunch with me. I hadn't thought about writing television at the time, but I knew of John's reputation as a producer in a class by himself from ER and China Beach, and so I said sure. The night before the lunch, some friends were at my house for dinner, including Akiva Goldsman [writer of A Beautiful Mind]. I told him about the lunch the next day and he said, "You should do television, you'd have fun and you'd be good at it." I said, "I don't know anything about television, this is just an introductory lunch." Later that night he saw a poster in my office for The American President and he said, "You know what would make a good series? That. If you focused on the senior staffers." I said, "Kivi, really, I'm not pitching a pilot."
The next day I went to the lunch and saw it was more than an introduction. Along with John there were agents and executives from Warner Bros. I sat down and John said, "So Aaron, what do you want to do?" Instead of saying, "I think there's been a misunderstanding, I really don't have anything to pitch" I said, "I want to do a show about senior staffers at the White House." John said, "Great, we've got a deal."
TVGuide.com: Tell me about the balance of humor in the show. No matter how snarky the characters were, it always remained clear they were dedicated to public service.
Sorkin: I always had a personal rule which was that before anyone could slip on a banana peel or flirt in the hallways, the audience always had to know that they were thinking about us. That's how we got away with the shenanigans. And the shenanigans is how we got away with telling stories about the census and the Federal death penalty.
TVGuide.com: You're known for the walk-and-talk sequences. Describe the importance of pacing in scripts that have so much dialogue.
Sorkin: It's really [executive producer/director] Tommy Schlamme who's known for — and great at — those long Steadicam shots. Tommy would often look a script I'd just turned in, see three consecutive scenes and ask me if was alright if he shot it in one. No one contributed more to the pace of the show than Tommy.
TVGuide.com: The real-world administration shifted while the show was on the air. Did that have any impact on your approach to the series?
Sorkin: The shift from the Clinton to Bush Administrations didn't have an impact on the show but the shift in our national mood after 9/11 did. It was harder to ask people to enjoy a snappy conversation about the estate tax when we were all angry, hurting and scared of being blown up.
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TVGuide.com: What would you say was the overall message of The West Wing?
Sorkin: I'm not conscious of a message when I'm writing, but The West Wing had themes in common with Sports Night and Studio 60. It's alright to be alone in a big city if you can find family at work. Being smart and excelling at your job is sexy.
TVGuide.com: What do you think it was about the show that struck such a chord with viewers?
Sorkin: Traditionally in popular culture our leaders are portrayed as either Machiavellian or dolts. I wanted to show a group of people who were highly competent and committed. Whether you agreed with some of their opinions or not, it was hard to argue that they were in it for themselves or that they were dumb.
TVGuide.com: The pilots for The West Wing and Studio 60 felt similar tonally. What changed from 1999 to 2006 that perhaps kept Studio 60 from finding an audience?
Sorkin: I think Studio 60's inability to stay on the air had less to do with anything changing than it did with mistakes I made in writing.
TVGuide.com: Do you have any plans to do another TV series in the future?
Sorkin: I love television and I'd like to do a new series as soon as I'm able. [Editor's note: Since our interview, Sorkin has confirmed that he plans to begin working on a new series — again set behind the scenes of a TV show — when he finishes The Social Network, his film about the creation of Facebook.]
Check out photos of the cast of The West Wing
TVGuide.com: What are you most proud of in your career?
Sorkin: I'm most proud of the people I've gotten to work with and the things we were able to accomplish as a team. There are moments I look back on everything I've written where I wish I could've found a more nuanced way to say something or a cleverer way to dramatize a conflict. But as hard as those failures are to swallow, you hope they make you better in the future.
TVGuide.com: What TV shows or entertainment figures inspired you or your work?
Sorkin: Larry Gelbart was a huge inspiration. Without M*A*S*H I'd have been in trouble.
TVGuide.com: What TV shows do you watch?
Sorkin: I don't miss The Office. I don't think there's ever been anything like it on television, except of course the original BBC version of The Office. The show's brains, heart, degree of difficulty and excellence of execution are unmatched.
TVGuide.com: Where do you think TV will be at the end of the next decade?
Sorkin: Back to basics. A re-make of F Troop.